How to Disappear
Your inbox is awash in spam, your boss is chuckling over your credit report, and you've got a sneaking suspicion that Uncle Sam counts how many LÃ¶wenbrÃ¤u you chug. Yes, your privacy's shot to hell, and you're tempted to shrug and settle for an open source life. But privacy isn't like virginity, forever lost after the first trespass. With some work, "reprivatization" is possible. Use this three-tiered guide to pick a level of solitude. But be warned: Going all the way off the grid is more Ted Kaczynski than Howard Hughes.
Diss credit: Want to be hard to find? Start by dashing off stern opt-out letters to the big database companies and credit bureaus - Experian, Acxiom, Equifax. These folks may make a mint peddling personal info, but they can be cajoled into stopping. First, though, they'll make you jump through hoops - like filling out a 1040-sized form or idling in toll-free hell. Junkbusters (www.junkbusters.com) has a good list of opt-out addresses.
Anonymize: Ditch your ISP and sign up with a service that lets you surf by proxy, keeping your IP address concealed. Send email via an anonymous remailer like Mixmaster, a digital middleman that scrambles timestamps and message sizes. And if you're going to be advocating the violent overthrow of the government or bragging about your cool new bong, make sure your remailer routes messages through multiple machines.
Ditch the digits:Want to drop out?Start by rustling up a new Social Security number.
The Social Security Administration doesn't accept paranoia as a criterion for granting a new card, but it recognizes cultural objections and religious pleas. One stratagem: Contend that your credit has been irrevocably damaged by a number-related snafu, or that you live in fear of a stalker who knows your digits. Once you switch your SSN, never use it. Instead, dole out 078-05-1120, an Eisenhower-era card that works 99 percent of the time.
Call cell-free: Use the humble pay phone. Mobile phones are being outfitted with global positioning satellite chips to comply with an FCC mandate. By 2006, all wireless networks must feature 911-friendly tracking technology. Marketers are cooking up ways to capitalize, like zapping burger coupons to your Nokia as you stroll by a fast-food joint.
Pay full price: You may relish saving 10 percent on Prell, but deep-six your buyers' club cards. Supermarkets and pharmacies haven't yet perfected the art of data mining, but it won't be long. "If you're having a child custody fight, they could subpoena your frequent-shopper cards and say, 'Look, he's buying too many potato chips, he's hurting the kids,'" says Robert Gellman, a Washington-based privacy consultant.
Move: Want to go completely off the grid? Start by moving - address changes bedevil databasers. But don't buy a home. All those loan apps will blow your cover. Residential hotels smell like cheap cigars and urine, but at least you can register under a pseudonym. Give a fake address: 3500 S. Wacker, Chicago, IL, 60616 - the front door for Comiskey Park.
Toss your cards:Pay cash for everything, and don't plan on a life of luxury. Any (legal) cash transaction more than $10,000 triggers government reporting regulations, which means you can forget about that Cadillac Escalade you've had your eye on. Settle for the subway or bus, using coins rather than prepaid fare cards, which keep a record of trips.
Go incognito: Facial-recognition gear will soon be ubiquitous in public spaces. To fool the systems, invest in a pair of bulky aviator sunglasses and a hat. If you fear being tailed, alter your gait every time you hit the street - a pigeon-toed shuffle one day, a bowlegged amble the next. There are also Central American plastic surgery mills, beloved of drug lords, that can alter the loops and whorls on your fingertips. It'll set you back 10 Gs, but then, Costa Rican doctors have been known to accept gold Rolexes in lieu of cash.
- Brendan I. Koerner